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The Death of UK Customer Service - AKA Please phone unconnected 3rd party call centre helpline with Zero Executive Powers

Customer AutomationCustomer CareCustomer CharterCustomer HelplineCustomer ServicesSelf-Service+-

I’ve born witness to declining service standards for a number of years now and things are alas still getting worse. We have seen such a huge decline in customer services over the years that the customers themselves have now almost become the customer service departments for many companies and service providers - often being the ones offering advice and support on communal bulletin boards and the like.


Nowhere is this drop more acute than with airlines - where I believe if they could they would make the customers load the baggage onto the planes themselves and walk those to and from the terminal - to save on even further costs. As it is, and contrary to what used to be the case - we customers now need to print our own tickets and luggage tags, affix to bags etc., and process our own bags through check-in. With some airlines you get ’receipts’ right along the line, while for others you’re not really sure whether your bag/s have been processed properly - you just see them disappearing down the conveyorbelt to who really knows where. I’ve always thought the luggage checking system was fraught with deficiencies and it is even more so in its automated format - that and the fact that anyone at the destination end can walk off with your bag intentionally or accidentally - it has always been a lousy system and is simply getting worse.


In supermarkets we have seen more and more manned checkout tills replaced by automated self-service points - to such an extent that several M&S Food outlets no longer have any active counter staff at all, and stores like Sainburys are pioneering entirely checkout-free systems where you use an app to scan all your purchases and check out by scanning a Q-code on exit - which is demonstrably an inefficient process. Every other time I use an automated terminal I have issues - the system refuses to recognise an item or two or won’t process or needs some sort of manual intervention or approval - one assistant here can be torn between as many as 20 automated checkouts - which is usually wholly inadequate and inconvenient for customers. I always try to seek out human engagement - as I feel there is more merit and utility in such.


Then we have stores which used to be the golden standard for customer services - John Lewis and M&S - and while the former is only in marginal decline compared to how high its standards used to be - M&S seems to be in terminal decline - I no longer seek in-store help from the now largely seemingly clueless in-store staff - they never know what’s in stock or where said stock can be found. You are far better off cross-referencing with their website - which typically provides really good store availability data on most items - rather than trying to get an ’assistant’ to help you. More often than not said assistant’s help proves entirely misguided or useless which never used to be the case - at least M&S is still good with its exemplary exchange program - but beyond that it’s not really painting a good picture of itself any more. The same can be said of most any high street store nowadays - I’ve experienced inept, lacklustre and unenthusiastic assistance in most stores of late. The one shining exception has actually been All Saints - who conducted themselves at the highest professional standards - actually Waitrose is mostly pretty good too.


I do though recall an encounter at Hugo Boss from around 10-15 years ago where the shoes I wanted were out of stock in my size at the flagship Regent Street store. The assistant was just going to pronounce it as a lost cause - sorry don’t have those shoes - better luck next time etc.. I had to cajole them into phoning the other 3 Hugo Boss stores in London at that time - after each call the assistant was ready to give up - Convent Garden say they don’t have them - better luck next time etc. - before we finally found a pair in stock at the last checked Brent Cross location. I then had to persuade the assistant further to get said shoes sent to Regent Street for pickup - they really weren’t prepared to do anything unprompted.


Another time at Banana Republic an assistant went down to the basement store room to find my size - before inexplicably and unannounced heading out for a lunch break - 45 minutes later when I asked what had happened to said person who was supposed to be fetching my jacket I was then told they had gone out to lunch!


Where I’ve encountered the worst service of late is at the venerable post office counter - you would have thought that they would have ’got their shizz together’ by now - but service is so abjectly poor that it warrants special mention here. Most recently I paid as usual for a customs fee charge online - as I receive a fair few packages from overseas. The package was due to be delivered as confirmed - this last Friday. Needless to say said package did not arrive - so I hoofed it up to the relevant delivery post office to see what the heck was going on. I handed over the little card with the package reference on it - said package was then retrieved and placed on the counter. I was then asked to pay money as there was still a customs charge outstanding. At this point I submitted my Royal Mail electronic receipt with payment reference number - as a legal and valid proof of payment. Post Office counter staff insisted that the fee had not been paid according to their own stand-alone terminal and refused point blank to phone or speak to any higher authority / supervisor etc. to check the validity of my legal tender. I pleaded with them to please seek second opinion from another supervisory party / check with payment department - as I showed them that Online Tracking also stated that Payment had indeed been made on Wednesday at 1pm - so several forms of proof from various Royal Mail systems. Still both the female and male counter staff refused to do anything about it - saying that my only course of action was to personally phone the Royal Mail Customer Service Helpline. So I am at the post office counter - with my package just the other side of the glass - with all the legal references and payment proofs - and they point blank refused to hand over the package, would not speak to any other department to gain clarity - and in the end pulled down the shutter on me!!! In all my life I’ve never witnessed such unprofessional wilful negligence - I’ve heard horror stories with airlines, but nothing of this nature - silly additional charges for sure - but things that could still be resolved in situ. I cannot imagine this happening in any other place - your being onsite and face-to-face with staff who refuse to help the customer in any way - and rather tell them to go away and phone customer services instead!


I was also surprised to find out that there is no longer any proper post office Ombudsman or regulatory body for service issues. Ofcom deals simply with the higher business level compliances (Universal Service Obligation etc.) and there is a weird third party organisation called the Postal Redress Service which has no proper legal or executive standing seemingly but will follow up personal claims and complaints. I don’t see it being that dissimilar to the Which? Organisation - but without that one’s powerful publishing arm.


Generally Customer Service / Customer Support is actually abjectly poor in the UK - this nation just does not have a proper culture of customer service. If you look at other countries you will find that several companies and service providers have officially named Customer Service Representatives / Ambassadors which customers can reach out to with a complaint or issue. Said ambassadors are obviously the heads of in-house customer service departments which do take ownership and look to properly resolve customer issues. This is not in place at any UK company as far as I’m aware.


In the UK you typically no longer have proper customer services departments at all - you have ’Sales’ and ’Customer Retention’ departments and then outsourced 3rd party scripted helplines which lead customers into a merry-go-round circle-jerk of no conclusions or resolutions - just empty promises to investigate things at the very best - these helplines gather information and feed back to their client companies, but more likely than not - those messages then just sit unanswered in some generic email inbox.


The Post Office is a great example of this as the 03457 740 740 customer service helpline has obviously been set up as a customer deterrent - you’re told things are very busy at the moment, given no indication of estimated waiting times or where in the queue you are - which most decent helplines do nowadays - and you get frequent prompts to put you off and refer you back to their websites which often contain incorrect and misleading statements which actually triggered you using the helpline in the first place.


In my country of birth Iceland - if you have a genuine grievance - you can still set up an appointment to go and talk to someone real in an office about the nature of the issue/s you are facing - and things will typically get resolved most expeditiously at that point. The ’Post Office’ though for instance is no longer really one integral company - you have a series of different divisions in fact different companies (Post Offices Counters) with their own computer systems and infrastructure and generally very poor integration and communications between those units per my example above. Whenever I finally get through to Royal Mail Customer Services - those staff are polite and helpful, but are themselves never able to get in touch with their counterparts in the post office counter / delivery division - their phone calls go unanswered as to their emails.


I have had half a dozen complaints registered with the Post Office so far this year - promises were made - delivery managers were supposed to escalate things and report back to me - no one ever did - not even once! It was only with my most recent escapade that I was able to get through to an executive manager who took ownership of the issue - but she could offer no guarantees or assurances - which I find rather incredible in this day an age - Amazon can arrange for an item to be picked up and replaced within a few minutes - with a guaranteed one hour slot - and the Post Office - whose specialism is parcel delivery cannot give you any assurances on even roughly when or if your package will be delivered!!! I for one love all my Posties or actual doorstep delivery staff - they are friendly and helpful at all times. While the Post Office counter staff largely seem to have been recruited from Mordor. I know of no other organisations - apart from obviously BT and the various Banks which are quite as dysfunctional and inept on a customer services level.


The weird thing in all of this is that there are still companies who do provide exceptional services - for instance Amazon has always been brilliant to me - and most of the companies I buy guitar gear and books / graphic novels from are friendly, helpful and professional - as is Ocado. The general high street stores and supermarkets etc. though seem to be weirdly going in the opposite direction. I feel that this is as much to do with the malaise of the high street as the recent ridiculous rate increases. Generally I get better and quicker service / replies / resolutions from online vendors than I do from anything in bricks and mortar. Where and when we have so much technology and resources and references to help customer services - I find it wholly bizarre how many organisations are going in the other direction. I get parcels from DHL, DPD, Fedex, Hermes, Parcelforce, TNT, USP, and Royal Mail regularly - and the only one that is consistently problematic is Royal Mail. Parcelforce is funnily a division of Royal Mail - but one that performs entirely professionally - would that the Post Office could follow their example ...


UPDATE! - Royal Mail Customer services came though for me in the end - I believe my lady postie intervened also - to the effect that the hostage parcel was delivered yesterday - so all of this did end with a happy conclusion. For a while I was concerned that I would have to go back to the post office counter and negotiate further funds for the release of the hostage!

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